Dory L.'s blog

The Transit of Venus--Books

ISBN: 
9780307700179

Tonight if you are lucky and the sky doesn't cloud up, you will be able to observe one of astronomy's rare celestial events, the transit of Venus. But be careful, and don't look directly at the sun without using safe viewing glasses or lenses. If you don't own those, you can attend one of the free events listed below. If you miss tonight's transit, alas, you won't catch another in your lifetime because the next one won't occur until 2117.

I've been reading about the transit of Venus and how an earlier one in the 18th century really expanded our knowledge of the solar system. It also was the earliest example of a large and cooperative international scientific expedition.

We have two new books that report on this scientific quest. Andrea Wulf's Chasing Venus: the Race to Measure the Heavens reports on the work and incredible adventures that were undertaken by scientists worldwide in trying to observe and make measurements for the transit that occurred on June 6, 1761. In an age when it took several months for a letter to cross the oceans and a few more months for a response, a scientist in England organized this great scientific undertaking. In remote corners of the world, scientists from Britain, Russia, India, Germany, the Read more »

Miss Fuller

ISBN: 
9781586421953

"I am absurdly fearful and various omens have combined to give me a dark feeling ... It seems to me that my future upon earth will soon close ... I have a vague expectation of some crisis--I know not what." Shortly before returning to America from Europe, the famous 19th century feminist Margaret Fuller wrote these words.

This small elegantly designed historical novel is a pleasure to read.  Besides the famous activist Fuller, it presents portraits of other famous 19th century literary heroes including Thoreau, Emerson, and Hawthorne. But these are basically side characters; it's really about Margaret Fuller, the activist, writer, and revolutionary who changed the world's thinking about women.

It's divided into two sections. The first tells the story of Fuller's shipwreck off Fire Island, New York. This section is told primarily through the viewpoint of Annie Thoreau, the famous naturalist's younger sister and helpmate. What makes Annie's viewpoint interesting is that at the beginning she does not like Margaret.  Like many in the politically active town of Concord, Annie felt that by concentrating on the problems of women, Fuller was stealing fire from the anti-slave movement. Read more »

Fifty Animals that Changed the Course of History

ISBN: 
9781554078974

If you're an animal lover (and who isn't?), you'll love this book. Fifty Animals is full of fascinating facts and anecdotes that describe our symbiotic and other relationships with interesting creatures through time.

Do you admire your friend's bright red shirt? If so, tell her that for centuries the best and most durable red dye came from Mexico and was shipped as far away as Asia. This red dye came from thousands of insects named chochineal. It takes about 70,000 insects to make just a pound of it. Since the advent of chemical dyes, it's seldom used in textiles any longer, but it now employed as a safe colorant for food.

The lowly donkey otherwise known as ass, has a reputation for being incredibly dumb, when in fact, they are smart, very adaptable animals that have carried our heavy loads for centuries throughout the world.

The wise and majestic elephant--my favorite mammal--we unfortunately coerced into war. In fact, the sight of just one of these intelligent beasts carrying archers and slingers reportedly so terrified the defenders of early Britain that the poor Anglo-Saxons were routed by the Roman army. Read more »

The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight

ISBN: 
9780316122382

I don't read enough young adult fiction, so when I came across The Statistical Probability of Love at First Sight with its intriguing title, I decided to jump in. It tells the story of seventeen-year-old Hadley Sullivan who is flying across the Atlantic to attend her father's wedding but only under duress.

"The Professor," as she tags him, left Connecticut a year ago for a four-month stint at Oxford, but never returned home to the family. He asked for a divorce from Hadley's mom, and Hadley has been seething ever since. Reluctantly, under pressure from both parents, she's boarding a plane at JFK International Airport.

The first thing that happens is she misses her plane. This really complicates things because she only gave herself a window of five hours from arrival at customs to being a bridesmaid at a London church. She gets scheduled on a jet three hours later. Hadley asks a woman to watch her bags and the woman angrily accuses her of breaking the law, but a handsome youth with a charming British accent offers to help. Read more »

Dreaming in French: the Paris Years of Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis

ISBN: 
9780226424385

Confession: I tried to learn French once.  Years ago, I signed up for a New Orleans Free University class in what should have been a great place to learn French or at least Cajun. But each week the instructor came to class "under the influence."  Even though he shared some wild Paris stories and jumped on and off the teacher's desk, my French never improved.

I've always enjoyed books about experiencing the world through the lens of a new culture. Alice Kaplan's excellent Dreaming in French is a very fun and compelling read. In clear beautiful prose, she writes about how living in France changed the life courses of three smart and gifted women: Jackie Bouvier Kennedy, Susan Sontag, and Angela Davis. 

Each of them spent time in France on the cusp of womanhood. In many ways, France and French culture affected not only how they viewed the world but their entire lives afterward.

In 1949 Jackie travelled to Paris by ship as part of a contingent of Smith College students spending the year abroad. It was soon after World War II and she was placed with a former WWII resistance fighter whose husband had died in a camp doing slave labor for the Nazis. Read more »

New Poetry to Discover

ISBN: 
9780062101860

Because it's National Poetry Month, I've been checking out new collections for a few weeks. Here are a couple more titles that I particularly enjoyed.

The Eternal Ones of the Dream: Selected Poems 1990-2010

Forget the sappy title--James Tate's poems are accessible yet deep, eccentric, and sometimes bizarre. His gifts include a fluid poetic style and the ability to continuously surprise.  Here's how "It Happens like This" begins:

"I was outside St. Cecilia's Rectory / smoking a cigarette when a goat appeared beside me...." The poem's speaker admires the goat, wonders if there's a leash law for them, and then when he walks away the goat follows him.  "People / smiled at me and admired the goat. "It's not my goat," / I explained. "It's the town's goat. I'm just taking / my turn caring for it." "I didn't know we had a goat," / one of them said, "I wonder when my turn is..." Whether you're a goat-lover or not, you will enjoy the odd realism here, the tongue-in-cheek humor.

In fact humor is another one of Tate's paramount qualities. Check out some of his other poetic titles in The Eternal Ones of the Dream: "Uneasy about the Sounds of Some Night-Wandering Animal,"  "Doink," "The Flying Petunias," Read more »

Quote Poet Unquote

ISBN: 
9781556592706

I'm both a poetry and quotation aficionado, so what could be better than a twofer? Dennis O'Driscoll's wonderful gathering of quotations about poetry Quote Poet Unquote: Contemporary Quotations on Poets and Poetry is the kind of book you read through to inspire you, make you laugh, or help you figure out what modern poetry is and does. Appropriately, Copper Canyon Press (the publisher) chose for their pressmark the Chinese character for poetry. It's constructed of two parts that mean word and temple.

O'Driscoll begins his introduction with Boswell's question to Samuel Johnson (the famous dictionary maker), "What is poetry?" Johnson's witty reply was, "Why, Sir, it is much easier to say what it is not."

The book itself is arranged in sections each beginning with a phrase. Examples include: "What is it anyway," "Making a Start," "Inspired Moves," "Call Yourself a Poet," "Best Words," "The Audience," "On the Contrary," and "In Memory." This is just a sampling. O'Driscoll has devised a lot more categories.

Here are a few of my favorite quotes (although there are so many good ones it's hard to winnow them down to a short list.) Read more »

The Man Within My Head

ISBN: 
9780307267610

The spirit of Graham Greene whispers through these pages. Pico Iyer is my favorite contemporary travel writer. The Man Within My Head differs from most of his books because he delves more into his own past than usual in this volume, detailing many connections he sees between his own life and that of Greene: they lived near each other in Oxford but never met, and each suffered a major house fire. They also traveled to many of the same places including Viet Nam.

Especially involving are the sections about Pico's childhood. He lived first in Britain, his father having come to England from India as a Rhodes Scholar. He was an only child and some of his earliest memories are stacking magazines with articles by his father. The little Pico loved to arrange them and stare at his Dad's pictures. When he was in grade school both of his famous parents were invited to California to be part of a think tank promoting ways to end violence. Pico tried to be an American student, to wait in the hills for the school bus with his plastic lunchbox, but he soon realized that education in the states did not challenge him. He asked his parents to send him back to England to attend boarding school. Read more »

A Partial History of Lost Causes

ISBN: 
9781400069774

There aren't many good novels about chess. A Partial History of Lost Causes is a fabulously good one.  In Jennifer Dubois's debut novel, two chess players from different countries alternate telling their stories until their paths cross in Russia in 2006. 

The first, Aleksandr Bezetov, a child prodigy, moves to St. Petersburg to attend an elite chess school while he is still a teenager. Exceedingly naïve and innocent, he's assigned to a boarding house where prostitutes and a crazy assortment of other Russians live. 

On his first day, while attending a celebration honoring Stalin's memory, he meets two young dissidents who invite him to their gathering spot, Café Saigon. Soon Aleksandr is drawn into a world of samizdat and far-left causes. Read more »

We Almost Disappear

ISBN: 
9781556593314

April is National Poetry Month. All across this great land, people are celebrating in schools, libraries, galleries, parks, etc. For that reason and also because discovering new poets is just fun, I will be showcasing some new poetry titles this month.

In  We Almost Disappear, David Bottoms writes about the South, childhood, camping and fishing, and aging. Nature features predominately in these poems.  There are also many poems about his childhood, including some lovely ones about his grandparents, his sense of personal history handed down through generations. I found the poems to be calming, beautiful, and full of a deep humanity.  Emotive and rich, they share Read more »

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